It wouldn't be the first time a hip-hop artist had trouble getting into New Zealand. "So many papers to fill out," sighs Chicago rapper, Lupe Fiasco. "Stacks and stacks and stacks to get into your fine country."

But for someone with a flair with words, it's surprising to hear the administrative process is weighing him down before he arrives for the Big Day Out.

"I used to hate hip-hop, yup, because of the women degraded," raps the devout Muslim on Hurt Me Soul. "But Too $hort made me laugh, like a hypocrite I played it."

The 24-year-old is poised for major stardom and it's words - and a little help from his friends - that are getting him there. First came his guest appearance on Kanye West's Touch the Sky. Then the glory of being named GQ's Breakout Man of the Year, alongside Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio. This week it was the three Grammy nominations for Best Solo Performance (Kick, Push), Best Rap Album (Food & Liquor) and Best Rap Song (Kick, Push).


"I'm not that good at what I do," he says, unconvincingly. A few seconds of silence later and he's back on the line, apologising the way you'd expect his mate Kanye West would: "Just jugglin' the empire," he laughs. "Jugglin' the empire."

It's certainly starting to look that way, what with a dream team of hip-hop moguls hollering their support. Aside from West, Fiasco's "special consultant", his debut album Food & Liquor features production by Linkin Park's Mike Shinoda and the Neptunes and the executive-producing muscle of Jay-Z, Fiasco's mentor.

Jigga felt so strongly about him he didn't care that Fiasco wasn't signed to his own label, Roc-A-Fella. But even if you stripped away the album's star power and its sweeping, cinematic soundtrack, Fiasco would still shine.

Like West, Nas and Jay-Z, his rhymes show insight and intellect beyond his peers - who he mocks on Daydreamin', a duet with Jill Scott: "Now come on everybody, let's make cocaine cool. We need a few more half-naked women up in the pool."

Although his Grammy-nominated song is about his love of skateboarding, it's a deftly plotted tale that is a metaphor for finding your way in life: "He said, 'I would marry you but I'm engaged to these aerials and varials and I don't think this board is strong enough to carry two'."

He also challenges listeners with grand yarns about terrorism, religion and the often conflicting moralities he confronts as a rapper.

Born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco to his African drummer father and gourmet chef mother, Fiasco discovered his knack for story-telling when he filled in the thought bubbles of his friend's comic strip as a teen, and developed it over music.

"I'm terrible with numbers but with words I can create something really deep, to the point where it's almost visual. When you look at The Matrix and it's just the green lines with characters and stuff and they have pictures with it. That's how I look at words. It's really weird."

At 19 he and his group Da Pak got a record deal with Epic. They didn't last long but that was enough to give Fiasco a taste. He had his sights on Jay-Z's label but wound up signing to various other labels before settling at Arista. Still, his early meetings left a big impression on Jay-Z.

"His main piece of advice was 'Don't chase radio'. That's my modus operandi. We didn't chase the limelight. We said, let's just make this music and see what happens."

Food & Liquor scoots all over the place, from the unapologetic joy of Kick, Push to The Cool, a lamentation on zombies that Fiasco says took months to write.

"I have a dark perspective," he says in anything but a dark tone of voice. "I strive to take the darkness and make it whimsical. Those kind of things fascinate me, like Stephen King."

The darkness comes growing up in "the hood" of west Chicago, surrounded by cliches of urban life: drugs, crime and as Fiasco puts it, "evil".

He managed to not get caught up in it all, partly because his father would take him away from it physically, but also because he had his faith. The album title is a crude summation of the balance he strives for in life, where food represents good and liquor, bad.

"But I also come from another side of life that's happier and uplifting so it creates this weird kinda mixture. I had a sanctuary. Even in my neighbourhood, my house was like this cultural shrine with all these different ideals and cultures and things going on.

"That's what I express. Melancholy is the best story because everybody walks the same line, where they're half in the light and half in the dark."

The glare will only get brighter for Fiasco, and it's doubtful he'll follow in Kanye West's cocky footsteps at the Grammys next year.

"This is my best work. I don't think it's grand or it's great. It's just the things that I do best."

* Lupe Fiasco, the next big thing in hip-hop at Big Day Out, January 19
Album: Food & Liquor